VictorySpark, Revolution Labs in Holding Pattern, Seek Funding
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Meier and Wichert had hoped to run a bigger Revolution Labs class this year, according to a Milwaukee Business Journal article in March. But because they have yet to snag more funding, the program is unlikely to return in 2014, Meier says.
“It’s not something I’ll let go of,” Meier says of Revolution Labs. “I’ll keep knocking on doors and looking everywhere I can” for funding.
Meier is more confident that VictorySpark will be able to scoop up additional outside dollars, although that’s certainly not guaranteed. Efforts to attract more state funds will likely wait until next year, when the legislature votes on the next two-year budget.
“We’re fairly confident that the state will continue to fund us, based on the success of the veteran entrepreneurs,” Meier says.
The original Vetransfer received a $2.1 million, two-year federal Department of Veterans Affairs grant in 2011 to run a program that primarily connected veterans with business services, like potential financing and business plan coaching, Wichert says. It operated with a team of around six people in The Shops of Grand Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.
Vetransfer later morphed into a three-month startup accelerator led by Wichert, who previously co-founded a healthcare startup, MedPath Networks, that has since shut down, and Meier, an entrepreneur and former attorney who previously co-founded the now-defunct Milwaukee tech startup accelerator, 94labs.
Their program, now known as VictorySpark, received $400,000 from WEDC in 2012, with $350,000 getting invested in companies and $50,000 going toward companies’ marketing expenses, Wichert says. Last year, the state legislature awarded the accelerator $500,000 from the state Department of Veterans Affairs, with $300,000 earmarked for startup grants and $200,000 for entrepreneurship training and other program activities.
All told, VictorySpark has pumped $650,000 into 40 companies from a variety of industries, most of them based in the Milwaukee region, Wichert says. Its latest class (pictured left) runs the gamut of sectors, from software to firearms technology to a company using worm farms to turn food waste into organic fertilizer.
Program participants have created about 130 jobs and raised an additional $2.5 million in capital, Wichert says. Recent examples include Mount Pleasant, WI-based 425 Inc., which reportedly raised $200,000 this year to grow its business around light-emitting diode devices for boosting emergency responders’ visibility.
The startup accelerator approach has become more popular with Wisconsin officials in the past couple of years, although they view it as only one piece of the puzzle for growing Wisconsin’s economy.
“I’m high on the accelerator approach because…I like the idea of having entrepreneurs supporting and mentoring entrepreneurs,” WHEDA’s Winston says. “That private sector-led approach I think is really important, and is particularly important in neighborhoods of inner city Milwaukee because so much of the existing infrastructure is nonprofit and driven by government.”
Johnson, of WEDC, sees a continuum of initiatives emerging to guide Wisconsin startups along the path toward a thriving business. For example, an idea and team born on UW-Madison’s campus could start with initial nurturing by D2P, then incorporate the business and move on to a grant-based seed accelerator like Madworks, which could prepare it for pitching to angel investors and winning a spot in a later-stage accelerator like Gener8tor, she says.